A proposal by U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts to permanently ban what he sees as the inevitable use of taxpayer money for abortions is expected to be taken up by the House Thursday. Critics say he and other supporters are putting politics ahead of women's health.
Heated debate over the Protect Life Act, authored by Pitts and cosponsored by a third of his colleagues in the House, could last through the end of the week and is certain to reignite one of the most divisive issues of our time.
The Protect Life Act would impose a statutory ban on using taxpayer money to fund abortion under the new health care law, making the argument that the current prohibition is too weak. The exceptions would be in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother's life.
But abortion-rights advocates allege the bill would allow hospitals that have a religious opposition to deny women the procedure even if the women's lives are at stake. The claim, called "preposterous" by Pitts aides, has been their primary case against the bill.
"They're calling it the Protect Life Act. We're calling it the Women Will Die Act," Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said.
Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called the Pitts legislation "a demolition derby of dangerous ideas that undermine women's access to care.
" … The bill eliminates protections for patients seeking care in emergency circumstances, and would allow a hospital to deny lifesaving abortion care to a woman, even if a doctor deems it necessary," Laguens said.
Pitts aides say such claims are flat-out wrong.
They point out that a 1986 law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, requires hospitals and emergency departments to treat and stabilize anyone coming to an emergency room.
"The EMTALA statute explicitly requires hospitals to take all necessary steps to save both the life of the mother and her unborn child," Pitts spokesman Andrew Wimer said. "EMTALA has never been interpreted to require a doctor to perform an abortion. Under Rep. Pitts' bill nothing about this would change."
They said that Catholic hospitals, even with their strict standards, allow doctors to perform procedures that could result in the death of an unborn child. "This is not abortion. Abortion is the intentional ending of the life in the womb," Wimer said.
In addition, the 2004 Hyde-Weldon Amendment protects health care providers including hospitals and insurers that choose not to participate in abortion.
It states that no federal, state, or local government agency or program that receives federal health and human services funds may discriminate against a health care provider because the provider refuses to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortion.
"In all the years that Hyde-Weldon protections have been in force, there has never been a case where a doctor cited these protections to refuse necessary treatment," Wimer said.
Pitts, who represents Lancaster County, has said his legislation is necessary to ensure taxpayer money doesn't pay for abortions because a similarly worded executive order signed by President Barack Obama could not withstand legal challenges.
Obama has said he would veto the bill, claiming it "intrudes on women's reproductive freedom and access to health care and unnecessarily restricts the private insurance choices that women and their families have today."
"Longstanding Federal policy prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the woman would be endangered," the Obama administration said in a statement.
Pitts, however, said the executive order could be overturned by another administration or struck down by courts.
"A sizable majority of the American public agrees that the government should not pay for abortion. The only way we make sure that the government does not subsidize abortion or abortion coverage is by writing that protection into law," Pitts said in a statement. "The president is on the wrong side of this issue."
Responding to questions about the timing of the vote, which comes amid widespread joblessness and little action from Congress on shoring up the economy, Pitts said: "The president, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi spent the darkest days of the recession ignoring jobs and forcing an unpopular government takeover of health care on the American people. This is unfinished business from that fight. It needs to be done."
Seven members of Pennsylvania's 12 Republicans House members are among the 145 cosponsors of the legislation. They are Reps. Mark Critz, Mike Kelly, Tom Marino, Tim Murphy, Todd Platts, Bill Shuster and Glenn Thompson.